Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Zinal conference


On 23 to 29 august 2014, the European Union of Yoga organized its 41nd annual conference in Zinal, Switzerland. The village of Zinal, originally just a hutment for cowherds, lies between the high mountains in the Navizance river valley at 1600+ metres. It is now a tourist village for skiers and mountain walkers, though the obligatory Swiss mountain architecture for all the houses still gives it an atmosphere that city-dwellers like us find very charming. In Europe it is about as close as you can get to the heights of the ashrams in the Himalayas.


The Union of Yoga

The board meeting only brought together the bigwigs delegated by the constituent national federations. They elected a new president, and other such official matters that need not concern us here.

Since I had gone unprepared and in complete ignorance of what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to meet quite a few people I knew, such as Anuradha & Vinayachandra from Bangalore, who sometimes come to lecture at Ghent University, and Dr. Jacques Vigne, with whom I had corresponded but whom I had never met. There were sessions in English, French, German, Dutch and Spanish. Since such a small village does not have the infrastructure for holding all the sessions in one building, much walking between sessions was inevitable but made a pleasant closer interaction with the mountainous terrain inevitable.  

Nearly 400 yoga practitioners participated. They stood out as good-humoured and friendly. They easily recognized one another by their carrying a yoga mat. They all had some years of practice behind them and proved it by an excellent physical condition. The mountains were a fitting environment for them, for they were upright people striving upwards and pointing to heaven. Perhaps outside scholars might want to criticize their defective or controverted intellectual understanding of certain matters, but there is just no doubt about their earnestness and sincerity of purpose. For me they were the real heroes of the gathering, for the positive atmosphere they created lifted me above some of my limitations.

The conference theme was Patañjali's understanding of kriya yoga, i.e. tapas, svadhyaya and Ishvarapranidhana. For Western yoga circles, yoga mainly means the Yoga Sutra, sometimes with some Bhagavad Gita and Kashmiri Shaivism thrown in. Tapas, "heat", cognate to the root of "temperature", is rather straightforward in meaning: discipline, asceticism. Svadhyaya, literally "self-study", means in contemporary Indian usage the study of sacred texts, which was all new to many participants. However, it is also used in the sense of "focusing on a mantra". Ishvarapranidhana, currently always interpreted in a devotional and theistic sense, is rather controversial among specialists. Jacques Vigne made a convincing case that it means "immersion in aum", "surrender to the sound of silence".

In Europe, yoga means primarily hatha (“power”) yoga, i.e. asanas and pranayama. Though meant as a basis for meditation (and the teachers here mostly focused on meditation), the general usage of the word “yoga” tends to leave out the very essence of what constitutes yoga. On the other hand, a grounding in hatha yoga implies that those who take up meditation have already proven their commitment in the non-negotiable way of getting their bodies in shape. Moreover, while asanas are only a more recent support of meditation, one should not underestimate them. It remains amazing how the dedicated practice of asana can swiftly weed out bothersome mental attitudes like low self-esteem, fickleness, irritability, slothfulness etc. and get the mind ready for meditation. Some so-called spiritual activities may be stratospheric, but disciplining the body and the mind is very down-to-earth.

The notion of "liberation" (moksha, mukti, nirvana) was practically absent from the discourse. In India, I have often noticed that yoga gurus are treated like some kind of different species: they are liberated, we are not, we are still tied to the wheel of reincarnation. Here, most people were dedicated to their practice but not goal-oriented towards "liberation", nor was anyone present treated as "liberated". Yoga has always had an array of different goals. Originally, it was probably aimed at acquiring magical powers, and "yogi" was another word for "magic worker". Patañjali was the best-known representative of a movement of purification which, in terms of the Sankhya philosophy, clearly directed yoga practice to the goal of kaivalya, "isolation" (of consciousness from nature), i.e. concentrating consciousness in itself, liberated from all contents. From almost the beginning, this goal got fused with the doctrine of reincarnation: the end result of meditation is the stopping of the wheel of reincarnation. From about 1000 BCE, the Nath Yogis developed hatha yoga with the goal of sharpening the body, but with the goal of making it more fit for meditation. Today the beautiful people in Hollywood and such places have taken hatha yoga as a goal in itself, with no more profound goal than to get better muscle tonus or more appealing buttocks.  

But the use of yoga for goals other than liberation, nowadays criticized by traditional Hindus as a Western distortion, has a long history. When Buddhism became established in China, Confucian literati mocked Buddhist notions of reincarnation and liberation, but appreciated the art of meditation, which they integrated in their daily duty-oriented routine as jingzuo, "peaceful sitting", sort of "tuning their instrument" before going out into the world to perform their duty. If yoga is good, then it is good, no matter what the ultimate benefit. As a youngster, I practiced aikido, and I remember Kanetsuka sensei advocating the practice of zazen ("sitting meditation", sad-dhyana, zuochan). To a questioner who wanted to know what zazen was good for, he answered: "When the emperor of China asked Bodhidharma: 'What's the use of zazen?', he said: 'No use!' I don't wonder about the use, I just sit." It is in that spirit that most serious practitioners of yoga do it. 




The good thing about Westerners practising yoga is that they do it from a completely fresh perspective. None of the social burdens that Hinduism carries, and of which quite a few participants did have some sobering knowledge picked up in passing during their trips to Indian ashrams. Hindus like to advertise the great success of yoga in the West, yet some hold it against Westerners that their manner of learning yoga is insufficiently traditional, or is even “stolen” from India. That latest reproach is certainly unjustified, for the West has paid untold millions to import gurus from India -- admittedly only fair after a long and lucrative colonization. However, Westerners should acknowledge their Indian sources, which was no problem here.

Only a few participants were even aware of the political situation in India, the legal discrimination against Hinduism and the ongoing war on Hinduism. Nevertheless, a few teachers, unbeknownst to their audience, happen to be involved in work with major “communal” (= alleged to be religiously divisive) ramifications; eventhough none of that work interfered with their job as meditation teachers. One very impressive meditation teacher from Pondicherry is involved with the rebuttal of the anti-Aurobindo campaign by some American scholars, an entirely dignified scholarly job which will nonetheless earn him the label “fanatic” from his opponents.

A psychiatrist teaching meditation and remedial consciousness techniques is involved with the psychological deconstruction of some godmen. He has earned the wrath of some Hindus with his qualified support to attempts to psycho-analyze the Keralite guru Amma, but ought to get their massive support for his radical deconstruction of Mohammed, reducing him to a classic case of paranoia (viz. entertaining the delusion of divine chosenness). I could add that even far better known gurus involve themselves in “communal” causes, which is natural, as in the dominant media parlance, “communal” is simply a pejorative term for "Hindu".



(If you have more important things to do, please skip this part. It is merely a testimony of some personal evolution as a conquence of this Yoga Week.)

After practising yoga for some years, even earning a teacher’s diploma at the fairly young age of 28 (1987), I left the European yoga scene when I first went to India in 1988. Other people go to India for yoga, I went there to study, research and work, neglecting much of the yoga I had learned. Over the years I visited most sacred places in Varanasi and briefly stayed at some ashrams, like Prema Padurang’s near Chennai and recently the Mahayoga Ashram in Ujjain, but it was not at all what I went to India for. I never went to yogic centres like Rishikesh and Haridwar. In my home country, I went to see some visiting gurus and practised their meditations, but some medical mishaps made hatha yoga rather difficult (though with the benefit of hindsight, I simply should have been more persistent and tougher on myself). Friends and medical personnel insisted I spare myself, and I was all too willing to oblige. It is only a few years ago that I returned to the European yoga scene, with a somewhat handicapped body, to teach Indian Worldviews and the Development of Yogic Thought at two yoga teacher training programmes in Brussels and Bruges, and Sanskrit at an Ayurvedic school in Ghent.  

This, then, was my first stay at Zinal. Since childhood I hadn't seen peaks like these, which proved a fitting setting for a Great Leap Forward. There was nothing sensationally new or deep in the yoga message, but the mere immersion into a large group of dedicated practitioners turned out to be just what I needed. The revolution took place on 29 August. Early morning, I took part in a session teaching the 24-verse prayer to the rising sun, interspersed with 24 physical sequences known as the Salutation to the Sun, a well-known exercise I had given up doing years ago. Resigned to being unable to do this anymore, I remained sitting on my chair during the physical part, at least the first few rounds. But then I decided to get up and give it a try. Though as expected, it was quite difficult and my bones were protesting, it kind of worked and I ended up doing it nine times. A large part was due to the inspiring influence of the no-nonsense Breton teacher Rodolphe Milliat.

Later that day, I had withdrawn into my room to handle an important phone-call with a publisher. When I came out, I happened to meet a lady from my own town back home, on her way to a meditation class. Though from there on, the road was steeply uphill, she was determined not to come late so she kept up a firm pace. Normally I would have given up, but considering the company, I didn’t want it said that I couldn’t keep up with a woman, so I toughed it out and we arrived together, though me badly out of breath. Friends who saw me, later told me they were surprised at my swift pace. I was relieved to find that my heart didn’t suffer any ill effects of this sudden effort, so I will henceforth have to double my speed. Her too, I have to thank for pushing me beyond my limits.

We went in and sat down for meditation. In my case, this is easier said than done: it takes a long and complicated manoeuvre to even reach the ground, let alone install myself comfortably enough for meditation. Nevertheless, I decided that this was the right day to stop sitting on chairs and familiarize myself with sitting on the floor again. To my great surprise, I could sit for an hour and a half, carry out the instructions and end up enjoying a deep meditation. This was very largely due to my being carried by the field created by the hundred or so meditators in the hall. I am very grateful to them all. It is probably a subjective impression because this occasion meant so much to me, but this meditation with Shraddhalu Ranade felt like a historic event, the kind about which you proudly say to your grandchildren: “That afternoon with Shraddhalu, I was there.”  

So, my years of sickness and excuses have ended. If you are in good shape, praise yourself lucky, but some of us set great store by recovering their lost health. I look back on years of combative publications that may have given my opponents the impression of a formidable enemy. Sitting in front of the computer is so easy, even I could do it. But in reality, I was a very sickly person, a cripple, making up for my physical limitations with some written outpourings. Certain limitations are here to stay, but now most have given way or are to give way to a regimen of hatha-yogic and other exercises.


kanishkagaggar said...

Dr Elst, Can we please know when are you coming to India ?

Thanks and regards,
kanishka gaggar

Koenraad Elst said...

@Kanishka: In November (Delhi), if they want me there badly enough. At any rate in January-February (Mysore).

Karthikrajan said...

I will be visiting switzerland this month end. Is your place far off from there ? Was thinking of paying you a visit.
Please give your email i.d

Koenraad Elst said...

Been to CH twice this summer, but am now home in Belgium for some months. But if you're there, always welcome.